Mark Ritson: The first rule of marketing is you are not the customer

There is a great lowball question that you can use on anyone interviewing for a marketing role.

Ask the candidate to imagine a leading tennis brand is looking for a new marketing manager. Two candidates make it to the final interview. The first is an ex-tennis pro who has spent the last 10 years in the lower reaches of the top 500 players and knows the game intimately. The second is a marketing manager from a soup company keen on a new challenge but with no experience of the game or prior interest in tennis.

Who is the best candidate?

You can argue that the tennis pro has an innate and extensive knowledge of the game and that makes her the ideal candidate. But you can also use that experience against her. She is a pro, not a normal customer, and her deeper and more widespread knowledge of the game might stop her empathising and ultimately converting amateurs to buy into the tennis brand.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson: Understanding customers is marketers’ most misunderstood mission

Similarly, the soup marketer’s inability to tell one end of the racket from the other can be used as a strong argument against hiring him. But, then again, taking someone with no knowledge of tennis forces that person to study the market more carefully and removes a lot of the over-confidence and innate biases that prior experience often brings.

Of course, the correct answer is that either candidate might be superior to the other. It will all depend not on their background but on their marketing proficiency.

A good marketer who is well trained will have been schooled in the discipline and will have started their training with extensive exposure to the concept of market orientation. It’s the bedrock theory of marketing and, paraphrasing somewhat, essentially points out that the first rule of marketing is that you are not the market. All your thoughts, feelings and immediate responses to things like advertising, price and packaging are not just incorrect – they are dangerous.

You help produce the product, ergo you are not the consumer of it. Learning to separate your own instinctive thoughts and feelings from the actual insights from real consumers is, literally, the first thing a trained marketer learns to do well.

Are advertising people different from consumers? Sure. But the bigger question is one of market orientation. Do agency people know that?

If the tennis pro can bracket her own experience and knows how to generate good qualitative insight, then produce clear quantitative results from representative samples of the target market, I would hire her. If the soup guy can do it better, I’d take him instead. I don’t give a fuck if either of them can hit a half-volley.

Men can market women’s products and vice versa. The key is not who you are but rather your ability to be market-oriented at all times. And we know from groundbreaking work by a host of American academics in the 1980s and 90s that the more market-oriented a manager and the company she works for is, the faster it will grow, the more profit it will make and the more successful its new innovations will be. It turns out knowing you’re not the customer bestows massive marketing advantages.

This is often a hard message to deliver, especially to senior C-suite executives who fancy themselves as “a bit of a marketing expert”. I’ve lost count of the number of times that these senior men – and they are always men – completely forget they are not in the gender, age range or salary bracket of the target segment but still wax lyrical about which campaign they prefer and what the marketing team should do next.

This is not marketing, this is being a cock. An overpaid cock. An overpaid, incompetent cock.

We’ve just completed another round of Marketing Week’s Mini MBA in Marketing and, despite all my efforts to make the pricing module the most rewarding and the positioning module the most enjoyable, the vast majority of our graduating class have just told us that module 1 on market orientation is their favourite of the 12 sections, because once you understand what market orientation is, it pretty much changes everything about how you practice marketing.

Data-driven decisions

How media agency staff compare to mainstream consumers (source: Trinity Mirror Solutions)

Market orientation was very much top of mind as I read the new report from Trinity Mirror Solutions last week on the major disparity between the advertising industry and British consumers.

The research worryingly confirms that the people who populate agency land are nothing like the markets they are attempting to influence. Agency people are younger, more left-wing, more mobile than their consumer counterparts.

More concerningly, this disparity is further exemplified in attitudinal differences. Agency people are more comfortable with risk, seek out strong emotions and have a greater need for belonging than the consumers they target.

According to the report, the results help to explain how “brands and advertising have lost relevance with large swathes of the UK”.  Its conclusions have certainly divided marketers. Many have expressed concern at the findings but many more have pointed out that no one expects marketers to be identical to the markets they target, so why worry?

READ MORE: How to get big insights from small budgets

I can see both sides. But, like Brad Pitt in Moneyball (sort of), I think the study is asking the wrong question.

Are advertising people different from consumers? Sure. But the bigger question is one of market orientation. Do agency people know that? Do they understand the implications of that? Do they exhibit clear and disciplined market orientation when faced with marketing questions? And does that lead to data, rather than their own gut feelings, guiding the marketing decisions?

These are the key questions of marketing. The real way to test our tennis pro and soup marketer is to show them some of our current advertising and ask for their opinion.

If they start cocking on and giving us their personal take on the campaign we can end the interview early and send them home with their bus money and a sad, disappointed smile. If they look up from the ads and ask, with a twinkle, to see the segment being targeted with this ad and the position driving the campaign, it is time to talk salary and benefits.

It sounds so simple, does it not? You are not the customer. The report proves that with extensive empirical evidence. But we all knew that already. Ten minutes in Soho in an agency followed by five minutes round the corner in a boozer would have confirmed that.

The bigger question is whether marketers know they are not the customer, and whether that knowledge creates a space research and insight can then occupy.

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